crowds line Fourth Street in Hamburg, PA during the Taste of Hamburg-er Festival 2015

Of all the food festivals in Berks County, none are bigger than the Taste of Hamburg-er.

Every September, tens of thousands of hungry people descend upon Hamburg for a taste of its namesake dish. But the timing was never right for me, and for 11 years, life got in the way of my attending.

I wasn’t going to let anything stop me from attending this year. September 5 had been circled on my calendar since last fall, and I was going no matter what.

The festival opened at 10 a.m., but we decided to take our chances and wait out the lunchtime rush. At about 1:30, we pulled into the parking lot of Hamburg High School and waited for our shuttle bus to carry us to the festival in the town below.

After a quick stop at the Hamburg Field House, we were delivered to the festival and the throngs of people who packed the streets.

I did a little research ahead of time, but I was no closer to making a decision as we started our walk along Fourth Street.

We passed the deep-fried burgers at Ray’s Catering, the bacon cheeseburgers from Scout Troop #184 and incredible selection from the Penn Werner Hotel (Oscar burgers, Baja burgers,  mac and cheese burgers, to name a few). I was surprised to also see CC’s Wooden Grill, the former Kutztown restaurant that closed more than a year ago, set up as well.

Making a left onto State Street, we saw the Weis Markets stand. Nothing against Weis Markets—we do most of our grocery shopping there—but there was no way that I would choose them over the 33 other stands.

We continued along State passed the Hometown Restaurant and Catering stand with half-pound burgers on pretzel rolls. We also passed Hecky’s Sub Shop, which was business as usual, attracting patrons with the promise of air conditioning.

After skipping the Leesport Lodge and the Inn of Orwigsburg, I found the burger of my dreams.

Sign advertising the Smokey Burger at Grizzly Bear BBQ

Smokey Bear BBQ was set up on the corner of State and Third Streets. I had vaguely remembered reading about them before we left the house, and my memory was quickly jogged when I saw the sign for “The Grizzly.”

burger topped with beef brisket and barbecue sauce

The Grizzly is aptly named because it would comfortably feed a bear. They take a one-third pound beef patty and throw a quarter-pound of brisket on top and serve it on a Kaiser roll. It’s simple, but it works. The brisket was perfectly tender. The burger was juicy. Both had that great smoky flavor I love in my barbecue, and together they made a perfect lunch.

We hung a right on Third Street to find something for Julie. The line for the Deitsch Eck was a little too long (with options like The Luther—a bacon cheeseburger on a glazed donut—I’m not surprised) so we continued on past Uncle Paul’s Stuffed Pretzels to the Chowhound Wagon.

Kooper's Tavern Food Truck

The Chowhound Wagon comes all the way from the Fells Point neighborhood of Baltimore to the event. In the Reading Eagle’s Festival Guide, the description merely said, “Serving burgers, fries, and soda.”

I don’t know if this was left intentionally vague, but those five words don’t do justice to what the Chowhound had to offer.

woman biting into a burger while sitting on a lawn

The food truck had six gourmet burgers, all made with Angus beef, or a build-your-own option with your choice of beef, turkey, veggie, bison, Wagyu or lamb. Julie played it safe with the “Elvis Got the Blues” burger, topped with Maytag blue cheese and apple-smoked bacon. After one bite, Julie was hooked.

half-eaten burger with blue cheese, bacon, lettuce and tomato

As for the fries, Chowhound offered four options: French fries, sweet potato fries, fifty-fifty fries (half regular, half sweet potato) and truffle fries. It didn’t take much convincing by me to talk her into an order of the truffle fries.

fries loaded with Parmesan cheese and parsley

They were delicious. Truffle oil makes everything better, but I absolutely love it on French fries. But the addition of the garlic and parsley just made these perfect. We both left with garlic breath, but it was well-worth it.

Somehow after all of that, we still had room for dessert. We had hoped to grab a seat at the soda fountain at Adams and Bright Drugs on State Street, but everyone else seemed to have the same idea.

three people holding smoothies in clear plastic cups

Thankfully, one of our favorite mobile stands, the Perk Up Truck, was there to provide cool relief from the 90-degree heat. We each grabbed a smoothie: fresh peach for me, frozen strawberry hot chocolate for Julie.

The only problem with the festival is also it’s greatest strength. All of the participants are bringing their biggest, most creative burgers to the event. Even without the fries and smoothie, I would not have been able to force a second burger. That meant passing on things like Gourmand’s Berks Burgers (with Lebanon bologna, cream cheese, apple butter and Good’s potato chips), Smokin’ Bull Shack’s loaded burger (cheese, pulled pork, BBQ sauce, pastrami, baked beans, coleslaw and onion rings) and Spuds‘ surf and turf burger (crab meat, lettuce, tomato and Chesapeake mayo).

If only I had three stomachs and a full day to try all of them. Still, I left with no regrets about my choices. And after trekking back up the hill to my car, I didn’t feel the least bit guilty about my choices.

2015 Taste of Hamburg-er Contest Winners

Best Burger-Restaurant

Grand Prize: Kooper’s Chowhound
Appearance: Kooper’s Chowhound
Taste: Kooper’s Chowhound
Originality: Deitsch Eck
Best Value: Weis Markets

Best Burger-Organization

Grand Prize: Salem EC Church
Appearance: Salem EC Church
Taste: Salem EC Church & Boy Scout #184
Originality: Salem EC Church
Best Value: Salem EC Church

Best Burger-Mobile Unit

Grand Prize: Ray’s Catering
Appearance: Ray’s Catering
Taste: Pop’s Original Screamer Sauce
Originality: Ray’s Catering
Best Value: The Hawg House

People’s Choice Award

1st Place: Uncle Paul’s Stuffed Pretzels
2nd Place: Deitsch Eck
3rd Place: Smokey Bear BBQ

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